TOWER GROVE • This morning, ESPN's Buster Olney released his rankings of the best lineups in the majors, and he lists the Cardinals at No. 3 overall. He calls them "an American League lineup in the National League," which has been a common description of the team the past two Octobers.
One of the reasons for the ranking, Olney offers, is Yadier Molina.
He lists the steady climb Molina's OPS has made since that difficult 2006 season (.595) to setting a career high in 2011 (.814) and resetting it radically in 2012 (.874). "Some teammates think that Molina's acute understanding of how pitchers and catchers think is an incredible weapon when he hits," Olney writes, "because he looks for a particular pitch to hit and is able to square it up." Molina developing into a more-complete player is something those teammates have watched first hand. This winter, Molina took his improvement home.
Last month, Molina made a 14-game cameo in his native Puerto Rico, playing for the Gigantes de Carolina in the Roberto Clemente Winter League.
In those games -- from Dec. 15 through Dec. 30 -- Molina hit .231/.293/.365 with a .658 OPS. Molina hit third in the Gigantes' lineup in every game he started. He spent 10 games at designated hitter, two behind the plate, and two at first base. He hit two home runs during the stint -- one off lefty Eddie Camacho and the second off righty Orlando Alfonso. Molina hit .313 with runners in scoring position and .294 against lefthanded pitchers. He had five walks, four strikeouts, and -- in a true showcase of his game -- sneaked in a steal.
Here is an update on a handful of other Cardinals' players who have taken their game abroad this winter, starting with the team's top prospect:
Oscar Taveras, OF -- In the Dominican, Taveras has hit .316/.379/.507 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 39 games. He had an .885 OPS and 27 runs scored. Taveras last played on Dec. 21, and there was concern that he was fatiguing after a lengthy regular season, the longest of his pro career. He's getting ready for big-league spring training now.
Jorge Rondon, RHP -- In Venezuela, the righty is 0-1 with a 4.40 ERA in 18 games. He struck out 19 and walked 13 in 28 2/3 innings. Rondon will come to big-league spring training on the 40-man roster for the first time. He's one of the power righties that the Cardinals have at Class AA or higher. He last appeared in winter ball on Dec. 14.
Silfredo Garcia, RHP -- In Venezuela, the righty is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in 20 relief appearances. He has 11 strikeouts and five walks in 20 innings pitched. He's helped his cause in the system. Garcia last pitched on Dec. 13.
Jermaine Curtis, UT -- In Mexico, the utility infielder has hit .298/.404/.366 and appears to be on his way toward a utility role in Class AAA with a strong spring training. He has a .771 OPS this winter in 53 games with a homer, 23 RBIs, and 27 runs scored.
Nick Additon, LHP -- In Mexico, the starting lefty is 2-1 with a 3.74 ERA in 10 starts for his winter all club, Venados de Mazatlan. He has 21 walks and 49 strikeouts in 53 innings pitched. Additon made his final start of winter on Dec. 5.
Eduardo Sanchez, RHP -- In Venezuela, that Cardinals' reliever is 4-2 with a 5.00 ERA in 17 relief appearances. Sanchez struggled with his command during his appearances in the majors this past season. He has 20 strikeouts and nine walks in 18 innings this winter. How Sanchez fits into the future of the Cardinals' bullpen will be something to watch this spring. Sanchez continued pitching through December and last appeared on the 29th.
Luis Mateo, INF -- In Puerto Rico, the second baseman, who is currently on Low-A Peoria's roster, has hit .313/.345/.403 with a .748 OPS in 39 games. He has one home run and 19 runs scored to go with 15 RBIs. He's also 7-for-7 on stolen bases. He last appeared in a game on Dec. 30.